Three BU Scholars Receive 2024 Sloan Research Fellowships

Photo: A composite image three people--on the left, a man with a blazer with his arms crossed and dark hair, in the middle, a man with short dark hair, glasses, and a collared cotton shirt, and on the right, a woman with long brown hair and a dark shirt.

BU researchers Hadi Nia, Chuanfei Dong, and Meg Younger are among the 126 scientists from the United States and Canada named 2024 Sloan Research Fellows. They were chosen for their “potential to revolutionize their fields of study.” Photos by Jackie Ricciardi and Cydney Scott

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Three BU Scholars Receive 2024 Sloan Research Fellowships

The awards will help advance research on lung disease, mosquitoes, and solar storms

February 20, 2024
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Three Boston University researchers have been named 2024 Sloan Research Fellows, a competitive award given annually to early-career researchers across a range of scientific disciplines. Astronomer Chuanfei Dong, neurobiologist Meg Younger, and biomedical engineer Hadi Nia, are among the 126 scientists from the United States and Canada who received the prize.

According to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, fellowships are “a marker of the quality of an institution’s faculty and proof of an institution’s success in attracting the most promising early-career researchers to its ranks.”

“It is an amazing achievement for BU to have not just one, but three of our early-career researchers honored in the same year with this very prestigious fellowship,” says Gloria Waters, BU’s vice president and associate provost for research. “It is a clear recognition of our outstanding junior faculty and an acknowledgement not only of their past achievements, but also their potential to be the next generation of scientific leaders.”

Since 1955, 59 faculty from BU have received a Sloan Research Fellowship, including this year’s winners. Fellows each receive $75,000 to be spent over two years on any expense to support their research.

“We are thrilled that Chuanfei Dong and Meg Younger have been named 2024 Sloan Research Fellows. This prestigious fellowship recognizes their creativity, their initiative, their scientific leadership, and the transformative potential of their research,” says Stan Sclaroff dean of BU Arts & Sciences. “Chuanfei’s research on plasma could unlock answers to long-standing questions about solar flares, life on other planets, the history of Mars, and carbon-free fusion energy. Meg’s work on how mosquitoes find humans to bite can lead to new strategies to thwart these deadly insects and save thousands of lives globally each year. We are proud of these young scientific leaders and look forward to seeing what they accomplish in the years to come.”

The foundation says fellows are chosen, in part, for their “potential to revolutionize their fields of study”; winners are selected by committees of distinguished scientists from their respective fields.

“This prestigious award is another recognition of the College of Engineering’s strength in mechanobiology, which is one of our core convergent research areas. Hadi’s work holds incredible promise for unlocking secrets behind cancer and pulmonary diseases,” says Elise Morgan, ENG’s dean ad interim. “The ultimate purpose of our research is improving people’s lives. This Sloan fellowship is the latest of several major awards Hadi has earned that demonstrate his commitment to that pursuit.”

Chuanfei Dong: Is there life beyond Earth?

Photo: Chuanfei Dong, a man with short dark hair, glasses, and a collared cotton shirt.
Chuanfei Dong, a CAS assistant professor of astronomy. Photo by Cydney Scott

From here on Earth, the sun and other stars lighting up the sky might look still and docile. But the surface of the sun is anything but quiet—with ionized gas emanating into the solar system, and the sun’s magnetic field releasing energy into an occasional solar storm strong enough to knock out Earth’s radio and communication systems. Dong, a CAS assistant professor of astronomy, is doing his part to figure out the complex interactions between stars and planets.

“We know that in the past, Mars had a thick atmosphere, but today Mars has almost no atmosphere,” he says. “So, what happened to Mars? One answer is that solar wind and solar storms basically stripped the atmosphere from Mars. A similar idea can also be applied to study exoplanets, and to see if planets orbiting other types of stars have atmospheres or not.”

Dong has been involved in a range of projects, including NASA’s MAVEN mission to understand how Mars lost its atmosphere billions of years ago, and he’s now utilizing NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to test predictions of atmospheres around exoplanets—planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. Currently, Dong studies TRAPPIST-1, a system of Earth-sized planets orbiting a star 39 light-years away that has three planets in a “habitable zone.” That doesn’t mean there’s life on any of them, but it does mean that the conditions are theoretically right for it—with them being not too close but not too far from their star.

The Webb telescope has found that the planet closest to the star in TRAPPIST-1 doesn’t have a thick atmosphere—a prediction Dong made in 2018. The funding from his Sloan fellowship will allow Dong and his team to advance their computer modeling work on the origin of solar wind and flares in the system and theorize how planets in the habitable zone lost their atmosphere.

“I’m very grateful to get this fellowship,” he says. “The Sloan Foundation will support our studies into how stellar flare and storms affect the planetary atmospheric escape and their habitability, and the origin of those eruption events,” which will eventually provide a deeper understanding of the habitability of exoplanets.

“There is one eternal question in astronomy: Are we alone in the universe? There are so many stars in the sky, and based on current knowledge there is at least one planet orbiting around each star, and most likely, several,” Dong says. “So the Earth is not unique. If we want to try to find a second Earth, we need to understand if they are habitable or not, and if they can retain an atmosphere for long enough.”

Hadi Nia: Can we predict deadly lung diseases before it’s too late?

Photo: Hadi Nia, on the left, a man with a blazer with his arms crossed and dark hair.
Hadi Nia, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

With each inhale, oxygen enters your lungs, and gets moved to your blood, while carbon dioxide moves back to the lungs and is breathed out—a process essential for life. That’s why the effects of lung diseases, like a respiratory illness or cancer, can be so devastating or deadly.

To study how the lungs function in air-breathing animals, Nia uses a technology he developed nicknamed the “crystal ribcage”—or, more formally, LungEx. It’s a system that allows for studying mouse lungs ex vivo, or outside the body, by using a ventilator and perfusion pump to keep the lung functioning, and a transparent container around the lungs to allow for real-time observation. The Sloan fellowship will help Nia, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering, use the technology to advance work to better understand lung resilience against diseases like cancer and pneumonia.

“As these diseases progress, there comes a critical point where the progression becomes irreversible, leading the lung toward collapse rather than resolution. Our goal is to predict these critical points at which the entire lung is at risk of collapse,” says Nia. The crystal ribcage will enable him to study the lung at the molecular level, and see the air sacs and capillary vessels in mouse lungs at work.

“The ability to predict the stage at which a disease’s course is reversible, potentially leading to disease resolution instead of organ failure and patient mortality, could significantly impact disease management and treatment,” he says.

The funding will help him bring together a diverse team of biomedical engineers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and immunologists to illuminate lung resilience in response to critical diseases.

“Being part of such an esteemed community is both incredibly exciting and humbling. Myself, as well as my lab members, are thrilled and energized, ready to channel this recognition into pivotal discoveries in the fields of cancer and pulmonary diseases,” Nia says.

Meg Younger: How well can mosquitoes smell?

Photo: A photo of Meg Younger, a woman with long brown hair and a dark shirt.
Meg Younger, a CAS assistant professor of biology. Photo by Cydney Scott

Do you ever wonder why mosquitoes seem to love you, gifting you numerous itchy welts? Younger, a CAS assistant professor of biology, studies how mosquitoes use their sense of smell when looking for a person to bite. Her lab focuses on the Aedes aegypti, mosquitoes that spread numerous diseases like dengue fever, yellow fever, and Zika virus. In her past research, Younger has found that the olfactory system, or the sense of smell, of the mosquito is organized differently from most other well-studied animals, likely giving them an incredibly specialized ability to detect human odor. With the funding from her Sloan fellowship, she and her team will continue working to understand how mosquitoes use this atypical olfactory system to detect human scents.

“Research is a group effort. I have been lucky to have excellent scientists join my lab and the Sloan award will be used to support them,” Younger says. “I am honored to be brought into the Sloan Fellow community.”

In her lab at BU, Younger is raising mosquitoes in humidified tropical rooms and using genetic tools to understand olfaction—like developing mosquitoes with fluorescent proteins that glow under the microscope when exposed to certain smells. By using these tools, Younger has been able to identify unique properties of the Aedes olfactory system, which has multiple sensory receptors housed within a single neuron. In humans and many other animals, there is one sensory receptor per neuron that sends chemical signals to the brain to decode an odor. This could help explain why mosquitoes are so good at sniffing out humans to bite, but more research needs to be done before drawing a clear conclusion.

“I am excited to make discoveries that advance our understanding of the chemical senses,” Younger says. “Especially in the mosquito olfactory system, because of the relevance to global health, but also to learn how different animals detect and encode odors and find out what diverse strategies exist that enable animals to smell the volatile odorant chemicals in the world around them.”

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Three BU Scholars Receive 2024 Sloan Research Fellowships

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